The Van Trump Report

Something I Never Heard… How Midwest Grape Growers Helped Save the French Wine Industry

Montpelier, France is home to a statue depicting a young woman cradling an older woman in her arms, a representation of the New World (America) saving the Old World. Specifically, it recognizes how rootstock from Missouri grape growers rescued the French wine industry from total destruction.

In the early 1860s, the vineyards of France began to mysteriously wither and die. First documented near the former province of Languedoc, the winemakers said the disease “reminded them distressingly of ‘consumption'”(tuberculosis). The blight rapidly spread, wiping out entire vineyards and laying waste to the country’s wine industry. Over 6 million acres of French grapevines were wiped out over a 15-year period from 1860 to the mid-1870s. While France was the worst affected, it also severely impacted vineyards in other European countries.  
Research into the cause of the disease began in 1868, when grape growers asked the agricultural society in Montpellier for help. French botanist Jules Emile Planchon believed the problem to be Phylloxera aphid, which inject a venom that causes a disease that is quickly fatal to European “vinifera” varieties. But this was something that American grape growers already knew.

As it turns out, the phylloxera aphid likely originated in America. The blight was first noted by French colonists growing the European vine Vitis vinifera in Florida in the 16th century. These plantations were a failure, and later experiments with related species also failed. Although no one knew why, it became common knowledge among subsequent settlers that their European vines of the vinifera variety simply would not grow in American soil. Still, over the course of a couple of centuries, European winemakers experimented with American vines and plants in their own soils, blissfully unaware that they were importing a deadly pest.

Planchon’s theory about the aphids, also known as “grape lice”, being the cause of France’s severe blight problem proved to be highly controversial with most botanists and grape growers insisting it was an unknown disease. The problem was that by the time dead or dying vines were dug up to determine the cause, the insects had already moved on to a new food source.      

British-born American entomologist Charles Valentine Riley had been following news of the outbreak in France and began studying European roots in St. Louis. Riley eventually discovered that native American grapevine roots were resistant to the blight. Riley along with a German-American botanist named George Engelmann concluded that grafting European vines onto American cuttings was the best method for overcoming the disease. Engellmann, who had studied American grapes since the 1850s, verified that certain living American species were resistant to Phylloxera. In addition, Vitis riparia, a wild vine of the Mississippi Valley, did not cross-pollinate with less resistant species, the cause of previous grafting failures.

Engelmann arranged to have millions of shoots and seeds collected and sent to France, where the species proved to be very successful in providing rootstock. French wineries devastated by the disease soon began asking for a huge amount of these resistant vines grown in Missouri. George Husmann, a winemaker from Hermann, Missouri, personally led the effort sending hundreds of thousands of native American grape rootstocks to wine producers in France. “Missouri is considered to be the savior of the French wine industry,” according to Cat Neville, curator of the Hermann Farm Museum in Hermann, Missouri. The statue of the young woman cradling the old woman, as well as several other monuments erected in Montpellier, France were erected to recognize that contribution.  

Today, nearly all French wine comes from vines grafted onto American rootstock. The exceptions are very rare with only a couple of vineyards in all of France escaping phylloxera for reasons that are still a mystery. One of those vintages is Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Françaises, considered by many to be the greatest Champagne in the world. The original-root vines grow on barely more than an acre. Up until 2005, Bollinger had another vineyard of ungrafted vines but phylloxera unfortunately caught up with them. Bottles of Vieilles Vignes Françaises retail for at least $500 but good luck finding one under $1,000. (Sources: Martin City Telegraph, NPR, Chicago Tribune)

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